Saturday, January 28, 2017

Doogarymore to Ljubljana: wheels of time

Doogarymore Wooden Wheel - 400 BC
In the early 1960s, an ancient wooden trackway, built to carry people walking in single file, was discovered close to the Lung River in the Callow Bog, North County Roscommon and dated to 1165 BC. A wood and stone trackway from the same locality has been dated to 1100 BC. Myself and some friends had the privilege of assisting the late Professor Etienne Rynne in the excavation of both trackways (See Blog Post – 8th September 2008).
This ancient roadway was traced continuously over a distance of a quarter of a mile. Today, it lies largely undisturbed beneath a blanket of soft bogland, hidden from the world but is depicted on the Lough Gara and its Hinterland map of the area. It seems unlikely that the wood and stone trackway was used for wheeled transport as it was only about one meter wide. Perhaps, some time in the future, evidence of wheeled transport will be discovered in the area.
The first routes in Ireland were prehistoric trackways, some of which were later developed into roads suitable for wheeled vehicles. Usually, most surfaced tracks from this period were made with wood and were designed to facilitate travel through or into bogs. In prehistory and the early medieval period, before the construction of major roads, rivers and lakes would often have provided a means of travel and transport through a wooded landscape.
Corlea Trackway, Co. Longford
Trackways typically date to the early to middle Neolithic period, the Middle and Late Bronze Age, early Iron Age (c. 500-300 BC) and throughout the early medieval and late medieval periods. For example, the Corlea Trackway (Irish: Bóthar Chorr Liath) is an Iron Age trackway, or togher, near the village of Keenagh, south of Longford town, County Longford. It was known locally as the Danes' Road and was constructed from oak planks in 148–147 BC.
Two massive block-wheels, dating to about 400 BC, which were found in 1968 and 1969 in Doogarymore, Co. Roscommon, are the earliest direct evidence at present known for wheeled transport in Ireland. Several features of the Doogarymore wheels are also found in wheels from widely scattered areas in Europe which include one-piece and three piece types.
The wheel found in 1968 was left on the surface of the bog and, unfortunately, only two warped fragments survived. Dr. Lucas from the National Museum of Ireland investigated the 1969 wheel which consisted of three lengths of thick plank fastened together edge to edge by means of two large dowels. The wood of the planks has been identified as alder and that of the two dowels as yew.
The Doogarymore wheel revolved on the axle which passed through a circular opening in the central piece. This hole was provided with a long wooden sleeve which projected some distance on each face of the wheel and housed the end of the axle.
The oldest wheel in the world was found in Slovenia and is 5,150 years old. The Ljubljana Marshes Wheel is a wooden wheel that was found some 20 km south of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, in 2002. The people who made this wheel lived by hunting and gathering in wood pile lake settlements like the crannog dwellers of Ireland.
Ljubljana Wooden Wheel and Azel
5,150 years old
The wooden wheel belonged to a prehistoric two-wheel cart thought to be a pushcart. Similar wheels have been found in Switzerland and southwest Germany, but the Ljubljana Marshes wheel is bigger and older. It has a diameter of 72 centimetres (28 in) and is made of ash wood, with 124 centimetres (49 inch) long axle made of oak. The axle was attached to the wheels with oak wood wedges, which meant that the axle rotated together with the wheels, unlike the later Doogarymore wheel.
Must Farm Wheel - 1100-800 BC
Cambridgeshire, England
In 2016 archaeologists working on the Must Farm Bronze Age site in Cambridgeshire, England, discovered the largest, most complete, and earliest example of a Bronze Age wooden wheel in Britain. It has been dated to 1100-800 BC, and measures one metre in diameter. This wheel is so well preserved it still contains its hub and is thought to be from a chariot or cart. It was made of three different kinds of wood: alder for the outer rim, oak for the axle and braces and ash for the dowels. This wheel bears many similarities to the two large block wheels found at Doogarymore.
The invention of the wheel arose out of man's trial-and-error efforts to move loads from place to place. The wheel of the Western world is a direct descendant of the Egyptian wheel, records of which go back to at least 2000 BC. Mention of the wheel is made in the Old Testament (the ark of the covenant was carried on a cart drawn by oxen) and it is possible that the ancient Hebrews derived their wheel from the Egyptians.
One of the reasons why the wheel was invented relatively late in human history is that metal tools were needed to chisel fine-fitted holes and axles. The ends of the axle, as well as the holes in the centre of the wheels had to be almost perfectly smooth and round. Failing to achieve this would result in too much friction between these components, and the wheel would not turn.
Whilst County Roscommon cannot claim credit for inventing the wheel, the earliest evidence at present for wheeled transport in Ireland comes from Doogarymore in the county. The oldest wheel in the world was found in Ljubljana in Slovenia and is over five thousand years old.  The axle of the Ljubljana wheel rotated together with the wheels, unlike the later Doogarymore wheels which were free moving. The Doogarymore, Ljubljana and Must Farm wheels share some common features and highlight developments in wheel/axel technology over some 5,000 years.

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